Editorial: SM’s NCT and the Localization of Hallyu

As most K-pop fans know, SM recently held a presentation show at SMTOWN Coex Artium in Seoul. The company revealed ambitious plans they have in 2016, including a teaser for their new boy group, NCT. Watch it first:

According to Mwave, SM’s plans for their new boy group involve a 3-step Hallyu system. The boy group, NCT, will actually be a brand that encompasses several different teams located in cities around the world. Two of the teams, the Seoul and Tokyo teams, will debut this spring, with Chinese teams waiting in the wings to debut later in the year. Other teams could potentially branch out to Southeast Asia and Latin America.

SM’s poster for the NCT project

I have to say, I’m not loving this. I’m absolutely not optimistic that this will succeed whatsoever. Accusation of being similar to the AKB format wouldn’t be unwarranted. It seems like EXO was the experiment that was testing the waters for this outlandishly ambitious plan. The problem is, EXO was a complete failure in the sense that the subunits collapsed upon themselves. Not only did EXO take a huge hit when 3/4ths of their Chinese members left, SM failed EXO-M by bringing them back to Korea to promote Wolf. To this day, EXO fans still squabble over which subunit was actually better.

Now, I’m sure SM has learned from their mistakes. With the full localization of Hallyu, I’m sure SM will commit to the market. As for the contract disputes, SM claims that if members want to leave, they will be able to without protest. They will end up being replaced by new members. There are a lot of glaring errors with this logic.

First, there’s a limited pool of talent to draw from, even in SM. While SM certainly has a lot of male trainees to even entertain the idea of a potentially 40 member group, they don’t have anywhere near an “infinite” amount of trainees to replace the ones they would lose, not to mention if they hope to expand to other markets.. Sure, knowing that SM would have a drought of trainees, a multitude of people would inevitably audition, but ultimately SM would have to lower the standards of their trainees. With this model, ten-year trainees would become obsolete in favor of less than a year training periods. SM would not have the resources to adequately train every trainee, leading to an overall decline of quality.

Second, if this plan succeeds, it will essentially mean the end of new boy groups from SM. All trainees would most likely be routed to the NCT brand, leaving no trainees left to form a new group. To me, this is a negative. I like being a fan of multiple groups. I love seeing new debuts with a fresh lineup, I love seeing the different styles and flairs of different groups, and I love the different music each group brings to the table. For example, imagine if all of SM’s girl groups were just Girls’ Generation. All of the f(x) and Red Velvet members would debut in Girls’ Generation instead of forming their respective groups. There would be none of the quirk of f(x), none of Red Velvet’s dual nature concept. All of the spark would be lost to the giant, generic machine that would be Girls’ Generation. I don’t see that as an upside whatsoever. I fear that with all the boys debuting in NCT, we would lose most of SM’s next generation.

Although to be honest, I would be perfectly fine with VelvetShidae.

Not to mention the logistical questions involving localizing Hallyu. How well trained in the vernacular will each member become (assuming they’re originally Korean)? If SM is planning to expand to Latin America, will we see non-Asian idols? Does SM plan on expanding to Europe and North America as well? If so, how do they plan on breaking into that market when they aren’t behemoths of the music industry? There are a lot of questions involved in the process.

As a long time SM stan, I have stood with them through a lot of scandals and half-brained plans. Through it all, I have accepted the fact that SM is a business, and they might as well be selling hamburgers rather than people. But this scheme, this attempt to localize Hallyu by creating franchises of boy groups, is so ridiculous, that it makes me question how this made it through the giant bureaucracy that is SM. SM doesn’t realize that they’re not McDonald’s. They’re not selling hamburgers, they’re selling people and ideas. And people are complicated. We get attached to idols, and when they leave, we’re resistant to change. I can’t imagine SM has forgotten the Only-13 fiasco. For all of SM’s clever tactics, not everything is about culture technology. There are real feelings and attachments involved in the process, and I cannot believe that they haven’t realized this yet.

I will have to wait and see if any of the teams catch my interest, but I have to be honest: if they’re just going to be forty replaceable robots singing the same song in different languages, I can’t say I will be too excited about it.


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  • NCT is not a boygroup, it’s more of a sub-label. And they won’t be singing the same songs in different languages nor is the concept as rigid as your just described it. Journalists are supposed to do their research.

    • arcticmoss

      As SM described it, it is a “new artist group” made out of subunits. Similar to how EXO has subunits under the “label.” That’s all semantics. And according to SM’s presentation @33:44 they will have the same song in different languages, in addition to their own music. As for the rigid concept, everything I have said is accurate. If you’re going to accuse me of not doing my research, perhaps you could provide alternate sources to explain yourself?